John the Herald

Scriptures: Isaiah 40:1-8; Mark 1:2-8

We continue our budding series on the Gospel of Mark today. As we begin to move through this, I want to remind you of the primary purpose of Mark, the primary point of Mark. The purpose of Mark was to share the gospel and good news of Jesus Christ and His victory over death. The main question that he will weave throughout that gospel, is “Who is this man?” And he declares who this man is, as we are to do as well.

Today we are going to talk about a particular person, John the Baptizer. And aren’t you glad I did more than one verse today? John was known, pretty much uniformly, through the commentaries and the church, as the herald of Christ.

So it behooves us to have a definition of what a herald might be. The first definition of a herald is an official at a tournament of arms, with duties including making the announcements and the marshaling of combatants. The second part of that one, which we’ll pay more attention to, is an officer with the status of ambassador, acting as an official messenger between leaders, especially during war.

The second definition: an official crier or messenger. Mercury, for instance, was the gods’ herald. The third one would be: one that precedes or foreshadows a coming storm; one that conveys news or proclaims. For instance, William Shakespeare says, “It was the lark, the herald of the morn.” And finally, one who actively promotes or advocates.

So that is what a herald is. And it helps us to understand a little bit about how John could be that herald. We can do that by learning more about John the Baptizer. Remember, this is John the Baptizer, not John the Evangelist. I will try, throughout this series, anytime I pull something from John’s Gospel, to make the distinction so you don’t get confused.

John was a “miracle baby,” with great expectations of him. I’m not going to go through all the things that made him a miracle baby. If you want to learn about that, you can come to the Bible study on Tuesday morning. But I will tell you it is found in the Gospel of Luke.

He was under a Nazarite vow from birth supposedly, and certainly as an adult. Note, that is not Nazarene (Jesus was a Nazarene), but Nazarite. A Nazarite was someone who took a particular vow. Anybody could take it. Most of the time they only took it for about thirty days. It was that they would not drink of any alcoholic beverage whatsoever, with any alcohol in it, and they would not cut their hair.

John was supposedly raised by Elizabeth as a Nazarite. So he never tasted the fruit of the vine, as it were, and he never had his hair cut. I have to admit that does present a particular view of him, when I think about him. I wonder how long his hair was, after thirty years with it not being cut. And I bet he had a beard that was worthy of Duck Dynasty.

John was credible as a herald to the people of Jerusalem. Remember, that’s who he was giving the message to, the people of Jerusalem. Now, he didn’t go into the town. He stayed outside of the town. So how did the people know him? How did the people hear about him?

Part of it was his family. As you find if you read the Gospel of Luke, his dad was a priest, in the temple. And his dad made a name for himself, when the birth of John was announced. I’m sure that the word got around about that priest Zechariah’s kid, when he was growing up.

It also happens to be, for our understanding and purposes, that he was a cousin of Jesus. So there was a family link there that is brought out more in the Gospel of John, but we’ll see a little bit of in the Gospel of Mark here, when we go into next week’s sermon. So there was his family.

There was his Nazarite vow. Just because anybody could do it doesn’t mean that it was frequent. People didn’t want to take that kind of time, didn’t want to give up those kind of things. I would even go so far as to say that that vow could be dangerous.

Remember, the water was not treated like our water is. When you go to a foreign country, the water is one of the most dangerous things you can drink. Normally, they drank wine that had a very low grade of alcohol. That was their main drink. In England, they used to call it “small beer.” But the main point was, there was enough fermentation to kill any bacteria that might be growing in it. So to drink nothing of alcoholic content was a rough thing.

Another reason he was credible was, he was clothed like past prophets. He wore a robe of camel-hair. Your pew Bible says a leather belt. I’ve read elsewhere a rope belt. It was very much reminiscent of one of their most famous prophets, Elijah. John never did any miracles like Elijah did, but he certainly looked like Elijah. And he was out in the wilderness, like Elijah was for much of his ministry

John lived a simple life. He ate locusts and honey. I know that sounds gross to us, but bugs are protein. And for the poor man, if you couldn’t get any other source of protein, you could eat bugs. Now, the Mishnah goes through what bugs were kosher and what bugs were not. You couldn’t just eat any bug. No flies, gnats, things like that. But you could eat locusts and grasshoppers and other kinds of bugs like that.

The honey he ate could have been from a honeycomb with bees. It might also have been sap from a tree, a particular sap from a tree which grows in that area. Again, this was for poor people. Now, he didn’t have to be poor. His dad was in the temple. His dad was a priest, a high-ranking priest.

But John chose to live this simple life, so that he could meditate on God’s Word and contemplate God’s presence and message. It was very much the roots of the monastic movement in the church today – those priests and nuns that go to live in convents and monasteries.

The idea is to move away from all the distractions, move away from all the responsibilities, in some ways, of family and other things, and to live a simple life than enables you to be in constant prayer and contemplation, even while you’re working in the field or garden or whatever.

He looked like a prophet. He acted like a prophet. He had taken a vow of someone who was very famous, Samson, even though Samson tended to break it at times. And he had a particular message, one of repentance, rededication, and royalty.

The word for repentance in Greek is metanoia, and it literally means to turn around. It’s not talking about physically just turning around. It’s talking about changing your mind so completely that you don’t go back to what you were thinking before. It’s talking about changing the direction of your life.

He gave this message of repentance, and then he had them do the baptism of repentance. A baptism of repentance, let me tell you, normally was reserved (demanded) for Gentiles, not for Jews. The Jews offered sacrifices for forgiveness, because they were already the people of God. But the Gentiles weren’t.

So the Gentiles had to because a Jew first. So the two things they did was one, they got circumcised (ow!), and two, then they got baptized. When they were baptized – and you have to understand this – this was not like where the preacher goes out into the river, dunks them, and then he brings them back up.

When it says they were baptized by John, that means he was standing over them, present, he was the one who was officiating, if you will. They baptized themselves. After all, the Gentiles weren’t clean yet, and the Jews didn’t want to touch what was unclean.

So they would get circumcised, then they would do this baptism of repentance, and it was a baptism that was more than just a washing. It was meant to be a cleansing of their entire person. They became a new person, once they were baptized, as far as the Jewish faith was concerned. Sometimes they were even given a new name, and they were expected to live a new life. (Does any of that sound familiar?)

So they had this baptism, and then they would have a rededication of life to following God. The best way to find out what that meant, because it’s not really covered in Mark, is by going to the Gospel of Luke – or coming to Bible study on Tuesday morning.

In the Gospel of Luke, if you look there, people say “What must I do?” And he goes through a list of some things that would be indicators – not all you need to do, but indicators – of the fact that you have rededicated your life or dedicated your life to living in a Godly manner, that you have repented of your sins, and there you are truly clean.

In Mark, like every Gospel, John the Baptizer points to the one to come and that one’s greatness. John heralded the coming of a great king, and vividly points to the difference in their spiritual strength and importance.

I’m going to read this again. “The one who comes is more powerful than I. I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” When somebody was a rabbi, and they took disciples, it’s kind of like becoming a grad student. Your professor can ask you to do just about anything, because your future is kind of resting in his or her hands. And a rabbi could ask a disciple to do just about anything. But one thing they could not ask them to do is untie their sandals and wash their feet. That was the job of a slave.

That’s why it was so shocking at the Last Supper when, in the upper room, Jesus took off his robe, stripping down to the loincloth, grabbed a towel and a bowl of water, and started to wash the feet of the disciples. And Peter said, “Not me! You cannot abase yourself like that.” And of course Jesus said, “If I don’t wash your feet, then you have no part of me.” Then Peter said, “OK.” That’s what was so radical about what Jesus did. He was a master, but he was acting as a slave.

Now here’s John the Baptizer, and he’s saying that the guy who’s coming, he’s not fit to be a slave to. He’s not even fit to untie the thongs of his sandals and wash his feet. When you consider how much John himself was esteemed, and rightly so, it gives us some idea of what it would have meant to the people who heard this message. The guy who was coming was big, really big.

John was a herald of Christ, who came and lived and died. He said, “Behold the Lamb of God,” in the Gospel of John, “who takes away the sin of the world.”

But what does it mean for us though, since Jesus has already come? He has already lived. He has already been resurrected. We’ve even had the Holy Spirit come already. John the Baptizer also said, in the last verse of this passage, “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” We got that. The Church has been born. So what does this passage mean for us?

Let me suggest to you that even as John was a herald, so are we. We are in the same position as John. We preach the need for Jesus, for salvation, the need for repentance, the need for changing your life around. We preach that Jesus is coming. We understand that it’s his second coming, but we preach that the king is coming.

And I use that word “preach” not like for me up here, but preach in terms of heralding, announcing, talking, sharing. “You need to repent. You need to know Jesus. And He’s coming again.”

If we’re going to be effective heralds, what must we do? Well, let me assure you, you don’t have to go around in camel-hair coats and eat locusts and honey. I’m not sure how long I would last on that.

The first thing we must do is be authentic, like John. John was who he was. He didn’t put on any masks. He didn’t put on any show. He didn’t put on any big thing. He was just John the Baptizer, son of Zechariah. He was the son of a preacher-man, perhaps, but he was himself, not part of the system. The people understood that authenticity, and it gave his message a ring of truth. That’s why they came out to see him.

We need to be simple in our message, like he was. The gospel is simple. That’s doesn’t make it easy. But the gospel is simple to share. We’ve all sinned. Jesus came. We have need of Christ for our redemption and salvation. He’s the only way. And he rose again from the dead, in order to seal the deal. A simple message.

We need to be consistent in our presentation. We can adjust things to be age-appropriate. I admit, if you have a young child, you might tell him Jesus died for our sins but you don’t want to go into all the details of the beatings and the trial, the cross and everything. Not for a young kid. Of course, I know a lot of adults that don’t want to hear that either, though they need to, so they can understand the depths that God went to, to show His love for us.

But be consistent in your presentation. Don’t keep changing what Jesus did. Don’t keep changing who Jesus was. Because Jesus was who He was: the incarnate Son of God, a mystery that we can’t totally grasp but we can totally believe in and have a relationship with Him.

We need to practice what we preach. That’s probably the toughest part of things. Anybody who’s been a parent here understands that. How many times have you told your kids, or even your grandkids, “Do what I say, not what I do”? The problem is they do what you do anyway. That’s why it’s so hard to break cycles of addiction and abuse in families, because we end up doing what our parents did in many ways. So we need to work at practicing what we preach, in our simple message and our presentation.

Ray Stevens had a song. He wrote a lot of novelty songs, but he addressed this once, in a sarcastic way. “Would Jesus wear Rolex.” It’s a fun song. You should listen to it sometime. He’s making fun of the televangelists, who are wearing five thousand dollars suits and wearing Rolex watches, and then are telling you to live a simple life and let go of your things, don’t let your money and your items control you, you control them, and usually by giving – to them.

We need to practice what we preach. That includes recognizing that there will be times when we fail. When we fail, we must remember who we represent. Remember the second part of the first definition of a herald: an officer with the status of ambassador, acting as official messenger between leaders.

An ambassador embodies the person of authority, the king – or the president, in today’s world. Even in today’s world, countries have embassies. The embassies are considered to be “sovereign territories.” Even though they’re in the middle of a different country, they belong to whatever country they are a part of. The U.S. embassies are part of the U.S., and they have certain rights and privileges, diplomatic immunity and things, which sometimes gets abused, but that’s neither here nor there.

The fact is, the ambassador represents the president and all of the people of the United States to that country. They negotiate treaties and diplomacy and things like that. And if you do something to the ambassador, it’s as if you did it to the king, or to our country, in today’s world. It’s a great way to declare war.

The ambassador comes, gives you an announcement from his king, and you cut off his head. That’s where we got the thing, “Don’t kill the messenger.” Basically then you are declaring war on the country. You disagreed kind of severely. More recently even, a few years ago, in Benghazi. I’m not getting into politics or anything like that, but the fact was, an ambassador was killed. Those people who did that essentially declared war on the United States, by the definition of who an ambassador is and how the law works.

So we remember who we represent, Christ the King, and we need to be quick to repent of our sin, and to move back in the right direction. We need to be open in our repentance as well. Part of repentance is confession, and confession requires confessing to three people. First you confess to yourself, because if you don’t recognize it yourself, then you really can’t repent.

Second is confessing to God. He knows it anyway, but we need to confess to God, because He’s the one that’s most affronted by our sin. But thirdly you need to confess to another person. It could very well be the person that you wronged. But even if it’s not, even if the sin was, say, something in the mind, you need to have somebody that can hold you accountable for that change of direction.

This doesn’t mean you go around confessing your sins to the entire community. You don’t have to wear a scarlet letter of any type, A, B, C, D, or E on your forehead or your chest or whatever.

You need to confess that sin to somebody so that they can see that you have truly repented and have turned and walked in a new way, going back to the way of God. We need to be open about our repentance and our movement in the right direction, so that we can remain authentic in our message and our faith and our presentation.

And then you move forward. It’s one of the hardest things we have to do sometimes. We hold on to it. We hold on to things when we have been wrong, but I think sometimes we hold on to things even longer when we have wronged somebody else and we know it. And a lot of times I think they’ve forgiven us, but we haven’t forgiven ourselves. I’m one of those. I find it very hard to forgive myself, when I’ve screwed up in a major way and I’ve hurt somebody.

It’s a struggle, but it has to be done. Because until you forgive, you can’t experience grace. And until you experience the grace, then you really cannot experience the empowering that will enable you to go back in the right direction.

You need a baptism of the Holy Spirit. And we get that. It’s part of our life. When we become members, we say that we have been regenerated. As Reformed believers, as Presbyterians, we talk about election and God’s reaching out to us ahead of time.

But really, we need to experience that baptism of the Holy Spirit multiple times in our life. I’m not talking about speaking in tongues or being slain in the spirit, falling over on the ground. I would probably panic if anybody did that. But being washed clean and empowered by the newness of life that comes from the Holy Spirit.

And then we need to share that with others. Repent. Believe in the good news of the gospel, that Jesus Christ came, lived and died for sinners like you and me, was raised again so that we might have a new life, a new direction, and peace in our souls. And He will come again, with his victory over death being proclaimed to the entire world, as every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord. And to God be the glory, when that comes.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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